In a sustainable world it is nature that sets the limits

By Ola Ullsten

Based on a speech delivered in London on 10th October 2012

This fall it`s 50 years since Rachel Carson published her famous Silent Spring. The book was a fierce attack on what she thought was an indiscriminate use of DDT and other chemical pesticides in farming. The discussion that followed, and still goes on, is about a conflict between demand for economic growth and respect for nature – in her example the farmers’ legitimate interest of improved harvests and the industries’ want for profit on the one hand and what`s good for the environment on the other.

She didn’t use ‘sustainability’ as a key term as does this article. Maybe because the term was not commonly used in the ‘60s and didn’t imply any pronounced policy. Or maybe because she found the term too abstract and insufficiently concise for her way of expressing herself.

Nevertheless it’s a book that has inspired generations to learn and to care about the planet we live on and what is happening to the environment that surrounds us. It had a huge impact on the public as well as on governments, science and business. Her fingerprints are all over most legislation aimed at changing the laws on our environment, be it air, land, or water. It is fair to suggest that she played a key role in launching modern environmentalism.

We all have a role to play to achieve the kind of mindset that sustainability needs.

As I see it sustainability is an on-going process that aims at a total integration of ecology and economy and recognises that nature sets the limits on unfettered economic growth. After all we need to breed, drink and eat, for which we need fresh air, drinkable water and food, none of which in practical terms can be replaced by technical solutions.

Sustainability concerns us all, whether our area of work is in the private or the public sector, whether we are students or decision makers, consumers or producers, rich or poor and wherever we live. We all have a role to play to achieve the kind of mindset that sustainability needs.

Students in economics should pay as much attention to how natural capital is being nurtured as they do to the health of financial capital. Ministers of finance must pay as much attention to the ecological database as they do to the ups and downs of the financial market.

CEO’s and presidents should realise that they are front stage actors in the drama of sustainability. They know that successful business requires respect for the law of the economy. But they have to learn to abide by the law of ecology as well. That applies to the chemical industry which was Rachel Carson’s main target as well as to any other industries and in fact to most human activities.

It’s just another derivative to invest in the illusion that natural resources are non-destroyable regardless of how they are managed.

Four years ago we talked about the two crises facing the world: an economic crisis that we called recession and a partly man made disruption in the climate that we call global warming or climate change.

We are still fighting these two crises although it seems that the threats to economic growth easily push environmental issues off the political agenda. This typifies the situation we are in. Most political parties and their accompanying pundits admit that it`s wrong to downgrade the environment as a political issue. At the same time they seem to be saying, even if the environment is of decisive importance for our common future, for the time being we cannot afford to stop living beyond our natural assets, if need be even far beyond.

Recessions and their troublesome preludes and aftermaths are rare but well known in the history of the world’s economy. They happen due to flaws in the way we manage (or mismanage) our market economy system, but they do blow over, or at least so they used to do.

Climate change and other environmental ills don’t happen by default. We didn’t know better. We thought natural resources were up for grabs and unlimited in scope. Now we know that isn’t the case. The world has, as ecologist Herman Daly puts it, changed from being scarcely populated and full of natural resources to one that’s full of people and with its natural resources running out.

Few people deny that. It`s closer to a fact than being just an opinion.

Humans’ footprints are huge. We have succeeded in transforming 50% of the land area of the globe and depleted half of its forests. 50% of its accessible surface of fresh water is exploited and 20% of bird species are lost. So are 750 of the world’s marine fisheries. 60% of the free ecosystem services that we use are exploited in an unsustainable way.

And as I speak the footprints are growing in size; the human enterprise is constantly expanding.

In that respect the two crises have a common feature. Both are caused by bubbles about to burst or, bubbles that have already done that. The ecological crisis is about a ‘growth bubble’ that filled the poor countries with more people than they are able to feed, while a stagnant population in the well-off countries keeps taking multiple times more than their share of the world’s natural assets.

The economic crisis of 2008 was about a ‘loan and big spending bubble’ that started to build on the American home loan market and went on to threaten small and big businesses all over the world. Not even the giant automakers or the once most trusted banks and other financial institutions were spared.

We all learned that an economy built with cards easily falls apart.

This applies to our approach to the environment as well. It’s just another derivative to invest in the illusion that natural resources are non-destroyable regardless of how they are managed.

How eager is business to engage in doing its part in finding solutions to the dual crises based on its triple bottom line principles – fighting poverty, saving the planet and still making money?

Two American research consultancies, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and SustainAbility (founded by John Elkington) have looked into the attitude of business leaders to sustainability and to what extent they had developed a clear business case for sustainability.

In one survey 92% said that they had addressed sustainability in some way. 70% said that their companies had not developed a clear case for sustainability.

That’s of course not so good news. More hopes come from the fact that those who had taken the sustainability concept seriously all had good experiences. 68% of those with sustainability expertise had improved financial returns as a result of their engagement in sustainability strategies. Among the newcomers 32% had taken a positive attitude to the sustainability concept, which is a good start.

An important observation in the same survey is that the top motivation for a corporation’s sustainability initiatives is government policies. Companies have reacted rather than being proactive. The same picture has emerged from other surveys.

… when we say sustainability we are talking about a new paradigm for everything political, everything economic and everything cultural.

The role of business in protecting the environment can be discussed from two perspectives: the context of sustainability and/or as part of the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) agenda. The two subjects are intertwined in that implementing CSR among other things involves a responsibility for employing environmentally sound production models. But, according to Elkington, sustainability is not the same as CSR, nor can it be reduced to achieving an acceptable balance across economic, social and environmental bottom lines.

Instead the very task is to find new economic models. Models that fit a world that is today inhabited by 7 billion people heading for 9 billion. And we are already living on a planet that’s ‘too small’ for us. All natural resources are scarce from water to arable land; from fisheries to forests.

Leaving it to CSR to be the main driver for the necessary transformation of market, business and technology isn`t realistic, says Elkington. If we do we cannot expect meaningful progress with the millennium target by year 2020.

New economic models don’t come ‘ready to eat’ as the slogan used by my grocery store reads. They come – when they do come – through a process that is rarely painless, either in economic terms or politically. Sustainability may be pictured as a win-win project and in the long perspective it is. But getting there has a price as do all profound changes in the way we are used to doing things. And after all, when we say sustainability we are talking about a new paradigm for everything political, everything economic and everything cultural.

The world needed people like Rachel Carson, a soft spoken firebrand who didn’t hesitate to take on the powers that were, no matter how strong. But there is a time for fighting and a time to sit down and sort out each other’s capacity to contribute to the change we need.

Science should maintain its handle on the short and long term impact of compromising the health of the planet. And come up with solutions. Business leaders should devise innovative means and methods of doing business in a way that doesn’t harm the global ecology.

That`s making a difference.


Ola Ullsten is Chair of the World Council for Corporate Governance and Patron of the  Trust for Sustainable Living and The Living Rainforest. Dr Ullsten was formerly Prime Minister of Sweden and Co-chair of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development.


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This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 14th, 2012 at 12:18 pm and is filed under Blog, Forest of Life Blog, Living Rainforest Blog.

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